The Ceremony Of Meditation

Fifteen years ago, I felt unsettled after reading a transcription of a talk given by one of my Zen teachers, Tenshin Reb Anderson. The piece was entitled “A Ceremony for the Encouragement of Zazen”.

I felt fine about Tenshin Roshi expressing the common Zen teaching that full liberation (and “oneness with the universe”) is not something that we can simply capture or do through our own intentions or efforts, but that we can align with our true place in the cosmos by sitting meditation (called “zazen” in Japanese Zen). What this piece said that I had not heard before, and disliked reading, was the idea that the true meaning of meditation is only realized within the context of a “ceremony”.

Meditating at the Sogen-ji Zen Temple in Japan

I just spent about a week staying and practicing Buddhism at the Sōgen-ji Rinzai Zen temple and monastery in Okayama City, Japan. Sōgen-ji is known for its long-time abbot, Shodo Harada Roshi, who many people have told me is one of the few great living Zen masters. I had heard of Shodo Harada Roshi for years before my visit, since he is the longtime teacher of my teacher Ryoshin Paul Haller (the abbot of the SF Zen Center), and of Soryu Forall (the Dharma heir of my teacher Shinzen Young). Harada Roshi also apparently has written a few books and offers yearly retreats at the One Drop Zendo on Whidbey Island in Washington State near Seattle, which some of my Zen friends have apparently attended.

Tassajara Zen Monastery: Committing to Lay Ordination

These letters are funny things. They generally feel good and healthy to write – writing them seems to put a seal on my experiences here, like an epilogue to a book, a desert to a meal, a shavasana to a yoga session. Also, somehow, I can’t explain how, I usually get a clear intuition about what things to write about in them, and what not.

But, I wonder, what is it that motivates me to write : is it to connect and share myself with people, or is it to try to share (teach) something liberating uplifting and inspiring with people – and, if either, which people. Or am I writing this for myself, and, if so, is it my future self (to remind myself of what I learn and experience here), or is it for my present self (to help move the energy through as I experience things here, like a diary, or a conversation with a friend where you get something off your chest). I also wonder how much to just bluntly share what’s happening, no matter how raw and freaky it is, or how much is it better to wait until I have worked through things more and I can write in a more neatly packaged form – with an inspiring uplifting moral to the story, and maybe looking better in the process.

Tassajara Zen Monastery: Learning From Kitchen Work

The group for this retreat has a little over forty monks in it, which fewer than the sixty to eighty who were here when I have been here for ninety-day retreats in the past. This means that all groups of monks (the work crews, the meal serving crews, the kitchen crew, etc) are on a smaller scale. We’ve had a number of people coming and going, which is fine, but I also find that I liked better the tighter container that I experienced in past years (i.e., where everyone who is here at all is here no less than the full three months).

Tassajara Zen Monastery: Doubts And Resolution

[Tassajara monastery has no internet.  I finished writing this letter in late March 2000, then I then sent it on a disk through the US postal service to my friend Rich, who emailed it out to a mailing list of friends]

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This is my first attempt at trying something new.  The temple director Leslie James gave me permission to type this letter up on one of the two computers here which are used for inventories and for composing official correspondences.  Also, the treasurer Linda Taggart graciously gave me an old disk with which to send a letter on.  So, in contrast with carefully writing everything out by hand, I am writing these words onto a keyboard – with a steep, rocky mountain rising in the big window behind the monitor.  It is familiar to me to be sitting at a computer and writing a letter, but it feels strange to be doing it here at Tassajara.

Mind-Expanding Classes, And Missing Meals

I took a class about “the flow of awareness”. We discussed being conscious of what goes through our minds, both what we are perceiving and what interpretations we are giving to our experience. Then I attended a class on the difference between effortless, “enlightened” non-karmic action done with the awareness that the universe is interconnected, one the one hand, and karmic action done willfully, individually, with a goal in mind, in a compulsive, striving manner, on the other.

Moving In To The San Francisco Zen Center City Center

A few months ago, I moved into the San Francisco Zen Center City Center, a Zen temple in the Hayes Valley neighborhood of San Francisco. The daily weekday schedule began for me the next day – waking up at 4:50 am, soon to begin an hour and twenty minutes of meditation (almost all of it sitting, with a little walking meditation in the middle), followed by twenty minutes of chanting, twenty minutes of temple cleaning, and then breakfast.